DUNEDIN — At about 2 a.m., more than seven hours into the June 16 commission meeting, a clearly frustrated Commissioner John Tornga spoke up.
"This is wholly embarrassing what happened here tonight," he said, facing a once-packed audience now dwindled to only three people. "We can't keep getting our agenda stolen away from us."
He went on to say citizen input, a period at the beginning of meetings when residents can approach city leaders for up to three minutes apiece about any topic not on the current agenda, is interrupting the flow of city business by taking the focus from items on the agenda.
"Really? That's what citizen input is for. It is our job to sit here and listen," Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said in response to Tornga's comments at the meeting. "(The citizens) aren't hijacking anything, they're using their God-given right to talk to the people who represent them."
Other commissioners fell on different sides of the argument about limiting the public's opportunity to speak to officials during city meetings, but Vice Mayor Bruce Livingston immediately agreed with Tornga and said citizen input lately has been too repetitive.
"Meetings need to be shorter and focused," he said in an interview with the Times. "If there is new information that can be provided, then it should be provided, but we don't need 30 people speaking to the same thing."
City Clerk Denise Kirkpatrick, whose responsibilities include taking verbatim minutes, spoke up at the meeting, too, saying she no longer wants to do so for citizen input that sounds similar.
"They're so long and time consuming," she said, suggesting she would rather take summarized notes listing who is in favor of what. She said if people want to hear the full narrative, they can watch the video recording, because "they're all saying the same thing and it's a lot of work" to write it all down.
Tornga suggested limiting citizen input to 10 people and telling citizens with similar thoughts to elect one or two representatives to present for their group to cut out reiteration of the same ideas. Livingston agreed, saying residents can still show up to support the speakers they choose or submit a petition — options he says would take less meeting time and accomplish the same thing.
But Bujalski said there is a stark difference between a crowd of people clapping as a support group and a crowd of people getting up to speak about something one by one.
"We shouldn't be in the business of forcing people to communicate with us in a certain way," she said. "The best thing we can do as representatives is allow our constituents the opportunity to speak before us, and doing anything to hinder that goes against the grain of democracy."
She says the repetition isn't a regular thing anyway and only relates to the last two meetings, when as many as 30 residents came to ask city leaders to stop developers from building on Catholic Church-owned land adjacent to Hammock Park.
"It is a unique situation. It has been one subject and two meetings and now we're going to change policies and procedures?" the mayor asked commissioners at the meeting. "I don't think we should change a policy for one subject."
Tornga said he's sure the commission will see more flooded meetings in the future, so something needs to be done to address it before it happens again. He said he would be open to supplementing a 10-person limit with more citizen input time, but only at the "very, very end" of meetings.
Commissioner Heather Gracy, although also frustrated by the lengthy meetings, said she wouldn't support moving any part of citizen input to the end. Instead, she said meetings could be held earlier or the city could find a way to better organize speakers.
"We have to fit into our residents' lifestyle," she said. "It is our responsibility to take residents along with us, so meetings should be at their convenience."
Commissioner Deborah Kynes said she won't support a formal rule that limits citizen input either.
"I am not going to shut people down. It is their right to speak, but I think sometimes we need to call a point of order, thank people for their opinions and then ask if they have anything new for us," she said. "I think we can work together to find a better process without losing or limiting citizen input."
Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.